The Reformation and Classical Liberalism
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation was no friend of capitalism. He said: “The pursuit of material gain beyond personal needs must thus appear as a symptom of lack of grace, and since it can apparently only be attained at the expense of others, directly reprehensible.” J.A. Hobson notes: “Luther’s intention and personal influence were not directed to release the economic or business conduct of men from the rule of spiritual life exercised by the Christian community. His earlier attitude during his reforming activities was a disparagement of material gain, an indifference towards the economic life.”
Hobson noted: “The early Lutheran Church, thus inspired, cannot be regarded as friendly to capitalism.” In fact: “Luther’s own repudiation of usury, or indeed interest of any kind, involves a definitely reactionary attitude towards the rising commercial and financial capitalism of his time.” On one occasion the great Reformationist said: “To exchange anything with any one and gain by the exchange is not to do charity, but to steal.” Conservative Christian author Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn says Luther, “was a typical medievalist.” And instead of, “advocating anything like classic liberalism, Luther taught the omnipotence of the state and opposed all forms of rationalism, Christian or otherwise”. The Jesuit Francisco Suarez was the leading publicist of the Counter-Revolution and one of his arguments, according to J.G. Merquior (Liberalism: Old and New), was that Luther had “dismissed natural law.”
Suarez found Luther’s “dark view of human sinfulness” incompatible with the idea a just society could be found on earth. Suarez also found a natural rights argument useful for Catholics living in areas dominated by Protestantism and argued for a “full return to the natural law perspective.” Suarez, however, being a good Catholic did not see these rights so much as individualistic but holistic and limited by the social-moral framework of society. According to Merquior it was the famed jurist Hugo Grotius who first took these natural rights views “to build an individualist account of society.”
Luther was quite explicit in his views on civil government. He said:
“You see it is as I said, that Christians are rare people on earth. Therefore, stern, hard civil rule is necessary in the world, lest the world become wild, peace vanish and commerce and common interests be destroyed… No one need think that the world can be ruled without blood. The civil sword shall and must be red and bloody.”
Barbara Ward (Faith and Freedom, Norton, 1954) says: “Luther’s social teaching thus set a part of the German nation on the road to passive citizenship and state absolutism.” She believes this “tradition of passive acceptance of state authority undoubtedly assisted Hitler in the securing of totalitarian control over the German people.” Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote the Reformers were not liberals in the decadent sense or in the true sense. He argued classical liberalism, “in the Reformation faiths makes itself felt only in the Eighteenth century as a result of the impact of the Enlightenment and of rationalism, both late descendants of the Renaissance and therefore alien in themselves to the spirit of the Reformation”.
I suspect much confusion arises regarding the ideas of early Protestantism because their movement was called the “Reformation.” People tend to think of a reformation as progressive or moving forward. In fact neither Luther nor Calvin wanted such a thing. They were reforming the Christian church in a backward direction. In particular, they were revolting against the role of reason brought to the Church by Aquinas. The Protestant reformers were trying to snuff out the light of reason completely. They were not the forerunners of the Age of the Enlightenment, but it’s most deadly foes. Frederick Beisner, Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University, explains how the Reformationists were in vehement opposition to the Age of Enlightenment:
“As soon as we look at the early theology of the Reformation, it becomes clear that it posed a grave challenge to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Luther and Calvin firmly upheld doctrines that conflict with the principle of the sovereignty of reason. These doctrines include the following:
1. That all human powers have been utterly corrupted by the Fall, so that it is not possible for man to attain salvation through his own efforts, or to know God through his natural reason.
2. That the sphere of reason is possible experience alone, so that it cannot discover, explain, demonstrate, or refute any belief concerning the supernatural and spiritual realm beyond it.
3. That the true meaning of the Bible cannot be understood by reason but by the spirit alone.
4. That God completely transcends the nature of man, and is different from him not only in degree but also in kind, so that to apply rational discourse to him is only to indulge in anthropomorphisms.
If we consider all these points then it becomes clear that the early theology of the Reformation cannot be regarded as the forerunner, still less the foundation, of modern rationalism. Rather, it is its antithesis, indeed its nemesis, an attempt to revive the spirit and outlook of medieval Augustinianism. Luther’s and Calvin’s aim was to restore this Augustinian tradtion — it’s teachings concern faith, grace, sin and predestination — by purging it of all its pagan an scholastic accretions. They wanted to reinstate Augustine’s strict and severe dualism between the earthly and heavenly cities, which had been obscured by Aquinas’s synthesis of Christianity and paganism.”
The eminent Swiss historian Herbert Lüthy (Once Again, Calvinism and Capitalism, Encounter, January 1964) wrote “Martin Luther’s revolt against the worldliness of Renaissance Rome was a revolt of a medeival spirit against the modern world, not the obverse.” In fact, he used much stronger language to describe the Reformation: “The Reformation, insofar as it was concerned with the affairs of this world, was also and very explicitly a protest against the worship of the Golden Calf. To use modern jargon, it was the outbreak of an anticapitalist movement that had long been coming to a head at all levels of society.”